This pared-down, scaled-down Othello is a 75-minute reworking of Shakespeare’s play. It uses modern English (translated from Belgian playwright Ignace Cornelissen’s original by Unicorn’s outgoing artistic director Purni Morell), modern dress and a cast of five. Broadly speaking it tells Shakespeare’s story but there are departures from it to make the simplified plot sit coherently.
For example, we start with Othello (Okorie Chukwu) choosing Ronald Nsubuga’s Cassio as his lieutenant over Lawrence Walker’s Iago to make it clear from the outset why the scheming Iago is hell bent on bringing Othello down.
Ayoola Smart is excellent as Desdemona. She cultivates a modern way of speaking to both Othello and her father as if she doesn’t intend to be anyone’s chattel. It is impressively naturalistic acting especially when she simply can’t understand why Othello is making such a fuss about a handkerchief and when she common sensibly takes Cassio into her tent to talk to him simply because it’s a cold night.
Chukwu brings alternating gravitas and humour to Othello and handles his eventual anger and undoing with appropriate dignity. Walker gives Iago suitably ferret-like, sinister determination and Ricky Fearon is convincing as Desdemona’s father. As Cassio Nsubuga seems young and easily (mis)led which works.
James Button’s fine set uses the whole of Unicorn’s large playing area so that there’s a sense of frightening emptiness around the action as, for example, Othello and Desdemona retreat to their lit tent at the end and earlier in the play when moveable blocks variously become a sideboard, war office and other things.
There are problems with this production, however. I hankered for a bit of Shakespeare’s language. It’s well written and entertaining but it felt to me as if there were a gaping hole at its heart.
Second, this show was billed as having an “all black cast”. Well I’m usually all for colour blind casting but this isn’t a colour blind play. It’s about racism (among other things) – graphically so. Yes, each actor is a “person of colour” but in order to make the text coherent the actors playing Desdemona and Iago are so light skinned that they are effectively white. Isn’t that, in a sense, cheating? And why is Brabantio, a black man himself, so incensed about his daughter marrying a black man? And why, here, do we have an actor whose ancestry is clearly African, reinventing Othello as an Indian? Mess about with the original play’s intentions at your peril because you risk of ending up with something which simply doesn’t make sense.